How One Man's Flaming Water Fired Up a Battle Between Texas and the EPA

Steve Lipsky gripped a garden hose and held it at arm's length, staring as a guttering tongue of fire poured from its end and grew another foot before his eyes.

"Look at that," he said in awe as the flame, liquid and sinuous, licked the rural darkness outside his home in Parker County. "It's getting bigger. Holy cow! Look at that. We're up to five feet. That's not even, what, 25 minutes? We could do this a lot bigger."

As the fire blazed and was recorded on a video camera during the summer of 2010, water poured from a nearby length of pipe atop the well that once supplied drinking water to his family's home. Since at least Christmas the year before, Lipsky would testify later, his submersible pump had coughed, sputtered and struggled to fill a 5,000-gallon holding tank with water. He hired a well-service tech to replace the pump, but found a very different problem: natural gas, and lots of it.

For months Lipsky had felt as though something was wrong with him. He was often fatigued and nauseated. In panicked moments, he feared he was dying of cancer. Perhaps this would explain it all — the pump, the tap water that foamed, the flaming hose.

Parker County Fire Marshal Shawn Scott was the first authority to see the fire trick. After blowing off Lipsky as an imaginative crank, in July 2010 Scott finally pulled up to Lipsky's palatial, 15,000-square-foot manse, at the end of a live oak-lined inlet off the Brazos River, just upriver from Lake Granbury.

"Mr. Lipsky turned on the valve at the top of the wellhead and said, 'Watch this,'" Scott recalls. Water gushed from the wellhead. A few flicks of a lighter, and water and flame poured forth together.

Scott, a good-natured but level-headed hulk, ordered him to snuff it out immediately. Lipsky turned, and the growing flame swept the wellhead, accidentally igniting a second fire. "That got us both a little stirred up there because now we got an uncontrolled flame coming from the top of the water well," Scott says. "That was the first time I'd ever seen that."

Scott radioed his assistant fire marshal and told him to bring his tools from downtown Weatherford, a 30-minute drive down two-lane roads. He needed to see just how much gas was coming from Lipsky's well.

"We got within 20 feet of that well and the hydrocarbon detector was going bonkers, full indication," Scott says. "I couldn't get any closer because you risk burning up the sensors. This is in open air. It's not like we were in a house."

Instead, Scott used a less sensitive monitor to gauge gas concentrations. "Anything above 5 percent, we start getting nervous. It went to 12 or 14 percent in nothing flat, which is definitely within the explosive range."

There was little Scott could do. Lipsky had a theory for the source of his gas, and the culprit was beyond Scott's reach. Lipsky had checked the Texas Railroad Commission's website and learned that two natural gas wells, drilled horizontally, ran practically beneath his home. "We really can't touch those guys at all," Scott says.

So, Lipsky contracted with a consultant out of Flower Mound. Alisa Rich of Wolf Eagle Environmental considered herself a watchdog of the gas production industry. She's known to cruise the backroads of Denton and Tarrant counties with a camcorder in hand, watching for oilfield spills and leaks, often proclaiming that "the wolf is on the prowl." Lipsky hired her to test his water alongside an investigator from the Railroad Commission, a powerful regulatory body that oversees the state's oil and gas industry.

Even before she had finished sampling on August 17, 2010, Rich was worried. Lipsky's tap water effervesced like Alka-Seltzer. It made her glass sampling containers slippery, as though it had been spiked with lubricant. More than a week later, lab results bolstered her suspicions: His well had been polluted by nearby fracking operations, she believed. Rich advised Lipsky to stop using the water. His wife, Shyla, and their 18-month-old, and 6- and 7-year-old children should stay away, she told him. Gas could be building up inside the house. Lipsky moved into the guest house and stopped using the water. His wife and children extended their routine summer stay with her parents in Graham.

Meanwhile, the results of water quality tests performed by the Railroad Commission came in. They found levels of benzene, a known carcinogen, above the threshold limit for drinking water. Yet the agency did not act, nor did it have an answer yet for the fire Lipsky could ignite. But he and Rich believed they did: It could be no coincidence, they thought, that the two gas wells beneath his home had been fracked just months before Lipsky first noticed his failing pump. Dissatisfied with the commission's pace, Rich reached out to a contact with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. With a single phone call, another kind of blaze was set.

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Brantley Hargrove